*. My introduction to the work of photographer Edward Burtynsky was the film Manufactured Landscapes (2006). A fully developed vision was on display in that film of what I’d call the industrial sublime. Burtynsky specializes in locations like mines, factories, refineries, and mills that are their own kind of landscape. And when I say that, one of the things I mean is that they’re big.
*. Burtynsky is all about the big. His format is large-format photography and his pictures take up entire sections of gallery walls. I went to see his Anthropocene exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario and was quite impressed, even trying to talk as many people as I knew into going to see it. I don’t think any of them did. But maybe some of them will see the movie.
*. The bigness isn’t just about the size of the pictures or the way the aerial photography in particular shows industry as landscape, from lithium fields in the Atacama desert to the marble quarries of Carrara. Bigness infects everything. There’s a bucket-wheel excavator at work in Germany’s largest open-pit mine here that made my jaw drop. The thing weighs 12,000 tons and it moves! There’s the Redeemed Christian Church of God in Lagos, Nigeria that can seat a congregation of a million. There’s a high-speed trip through the longest tunnel in the world, the Gotthard Base Tunnel that cuts 57 km through the Alps. At scales like these humanity seems to almost disappear.
*. This in turn leads to what I take it is the point being made. The Anthropocene is so called because it marks a phase in the Earth’s history where the planet’s geology and ecosystems have been transformed by human impact. But the “human epoch” is paradoxically inhuman. It’s not just that human figures are reduced to ant-size, or even made invisible by our species’ giant works, but that these works are transforming the planet into a new sort of environment that is unlivable. We are living in the inhuman epoch.
*. The other paradox that the film exploits is that of toxic beauty. The imagery here is beautiful, even when scrolling over a hellscape of refineries that recalls Mordor, or trudging through the garbage world of Nairobi’s Dandora. It’s hard to imagine anyone living or working in such places, but there they are. The aesthetic response to the sublime is shock and awe and there’s no denying it’s evoked here. But the sublime is a terrifying beauty.
*. There’s minimal narration from Alicia Vikander, and some interviews with people on the ground. But it’s not an informational movie. As Edward Norton puts it in an interview included with the DVD, it’s not an intellectual documentary but more “visceral.” Though I’m not sure that’s right either. It’s not the gut that’s targeted but the eye, which may be an even more direct route to provoking a response.
*. This matters because Anthropocene is a political film. It has an environmental message much the same as films like An Inconvenient Truth and Before the Flood, that message being the mess we’ve made of things. I think it’s more effective in making that message than those other films for its visual directness. No need for graphs and charts and talking heads with imagery like this. Imagery that carries a final paradox: the apocalyptic everyday. As industrial landscapes these are both visions of the end of the world as well as just places where people work, and even sometimes live. Our only mistake would be to see them as far away or exotic. In a globalized economy, they are the apocalypse next door.